The worst infield for the dough

As spring training inches ever closer, there’s still time to review some of the performances from last year that caught our eye—and not in a good way. Today, we shine a light on the underachievers. These are the guys who were paid big bucks to provide big production but who didn’t come through. The goal here is simple: fiscal irresponsibility. Our fictional budget is unlimited, and when we compile our final roster, we’ll add up the contracts and see just how bad—and costly—our underachieving team was.

Here is our starting infield and a look at where it all went wrong.

Jason Kendall, C
$13 Million, -3 WSAB

The anti-Posada, Kendall posted career lows in just about every offensive category, including the three averages listed above.

Age is rarely kind, especially to a catcher, and Kendall’s decline began when he was traded to Oakland after the 2004 season. It accelerated last year thanks to an approach at the plate where he began getting under the ball and lofting more flies.

For his career, Kendall has a GB/FB of about 1.7. That’s not great, but it has normally been good enough to get him on base. Note that Kendall hasn’t always been bereft of power: In his early days as a Pirate, he could hope to challenge double digits in home runs and around 30 doubles. Now, whatever power he had is all but gone, so most of his fly balls land harmlessly in the gloves of outfielders.

Last year, Kendall simply hit far too many fly balls to be productive, especially in Oakland where his GB/FB dropped to 1.1. And he forgot his patience in Oakland as well—he walked in only 3.9% of his appearances, compared to a 8.6% walk rate for his career. The result was a horrible first half in which Kendall hit .226/.261/.281 in his first 80 games before his trade, and which cemented his inclusion on this list.

Once Kendall moved back to the NL with the Cubs, he got his fly balls under better control and elevated his walk rate to 9.8%, and he was able to post a .718 OPS. That’s not great (and certainly not worth the money), but it was a huge improvement over his .542 OPS in Oakland.

At his best, Kendall has been a solid catcher with good plate discipline and above-average speed. At his worst… well, that was 2007. By the end of 2007, Kendall had collected W-2s from three different teams. Pittsburgh paid him $5.5 million not to play for them, Oakland gave him $6.6 million and the Cubs were good enough to pick up the remaining $900,000. The irony is, he was most productive for the team that gave him the least cash.

This winter, Kendall was signed by Milwaukee to a one-year contract for $4.25 million. Marcel thinks that Kendall can continue his progress in getting his flyball rate under control and will rebound to .265/.333/.334. Kendall’s power, if it’s not already obvious, is gone for good.

Richie Sexson, 1B
$14 Million, -1 WSAB

A hamstring injury late in the season barely kept Sexson from qualifying, but his .212 BABIP was grotesquely low—in fact, it would have been the worst in baseball among qualifiers by 21 points. If only Sexson would listen to Yogi, he’d know to “hit ’em where they ain’t.”

Undoubtedly, Sexson can’t be that unlucky again. But there is another, more troubling trend: His power is declining.

Ignore the spike in ISO in 2004—that was the year where Sexson appeared in only 23 games for the Diamondbacks before tearing the labrum in his left shoulder and undergoing surgery, missing most of the season. In fact, it can be argued that Sexson hasn’t been the same player since. He still hits roughly the same number of fly balls, but post-surgery, he isn’t generating the same power. Here are his rates of HR/FB since his age-28 season in 2003:

2003: 29.2%
2004: 37.5%
2005: 24.5%
2006: 19.3%
2007: 16.7%

Again, discard the entry for 2004, which was compiled in only 104 appearances. What we see here is a definite trend of a loss of power. And this isn’t something that is happening slowly: Sexson’s HR/FB is falling by about five percentage points a year. Home run hitters drive the Cadillacs, but Sexson looks to be shopping for a mid-size economy car.

Marcel agrees that Sexson’s horrible luck at the plate cannot continue and figures that Sexson is good for a .279 BABIP. That’s still below league average, but it would be good enough to bump Sexson’s numbers into the .244/.330/.461 range. However, with only a .217 projected ISO, the forecast is less optimistic that he’ll regain his power stroke.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Ray Durham, 2B
$7 Million, -4 WSAB

In December 2002, Durham signed a four-year deal worth $27 million to play second base for the Giants. During the contract, he was fairly consistent when it came to hitting for average and getting on base:

2003: .285/.366/.441
2004: .282/.364/.484
2005: .290/.356/.429
2006: .293/.360/.538

The Giants, perhaps because they enjoy consistency, or maybe because they thought his career-high 26 home runs in 2006 meant he was a late bloomer, rewarded Durham with a two-year, $14.5-million extension. Durham would be 35 in 2007, so recent consistency aside, it should have been obvious that he was close to the twilight of his career.

Twilight? More like complete darkness, as Durham followed his career-high slugging percentage with a career low in extra-base hits.

It’s certainly going to be difficult for a 13-year veteran with a .436 career slugging percentage to keep hitting home runs at AT&T Park in San Francisco. Doubly so for a switch hitter who has shown more power over his career from the left side of the plate. A decrease in home runs was certainly expected, and Durham last season hit only 2 of his 11 home runs at home.

But AT&T Park, with its deep power alley in right-center and abundance of outfield space, is a good park for doubles and triples. Unfortunately, Durham doesn’t have the speed that he once possessed, and he also stopped making solid contact. Add those two variables together, and you have a 30% decline in doubles. Here are Durham’s line-drive percentages from the previous three seasons:

2005: 21.6%
2006: 16.7%
2007: 13.4%

The lack of line drives also meant that fewer of the balls that he would put into play would fall for hits. Recall how, if Sexson had qualified, he would have had the league’s worst BABIP? Sexson would have pushed Durham (.238 BABIP) into the No. 2 position.

Marcel predicts a rebound season from Durham in which he will hit .258/.328/.416 with 25 doubles and 14 home runs. But compare that line to Durham’s production from 2002 through 2006, and it’s hard to see how he will ever provide the value that the Giants expected when he signed his latest contract.

Eric Chavez, 3B
$9 Million, 0 WSAB

It almost doesn’t seem fair to include Chavez. We’re talking about a guy who missed time last season with tendonitis in his forearms, triceps and elbows, a strained rib cage and a sore lower back that ultimately ended his season. Nevertheless, he did manage to appear in 90 games for the A’s, and even when (allegedly) healthy, Chavez didn’t perform.

Chavez has been battling injuries since he signed his contract extension prior to the 2003 season. Despite his various ailments, Chavez remained a solid contributor to a team that won the AL West in 2003 and challenged for the title in 2004. But the various injuries piled up, and in 2005 his contributions began to slide.

Throughout his career, Chavez has tried to play through the pain. Would his career have turned out differently if he had taken off more time for his back problems or for his broken hand in 2004? Or if he had decided to sit out for a month to recover from a sore shoulder that ultimately required surgery in 2005?

Since the premature end of his 2007 season, Chavez has undergone surgery on his right shoulder in September, followed by back surgery in October, and then surgery on his left shoulder in November. He might never win a Silver Slugger Award, but he could be jockeying for a Bronze Scalpel.

Chavez is due $34 million over the next three years. At this point, the A’s just have to hope that he is healthy enough to provide league-average production. Marcel believes that, although Chavez’s power has probably flatlined, he can still contribute, and it has Chavez pegged for .251/.329/.442. Production-wise, that line would put Chavez in the bottom third of all third basemen, but considering all that he has gone through, it would represent a small victory.

It should be noted that Scott Rolen, Morgan Ensberg and Shea Hillenbrand were all considered to fill this position.

Julio Lugo, SS
$8 Million, 0 WSAB

The Red Sox have had a hard time finding anyone to play short since Nomar Garciaparra’s last decent season in 2003. Since then, the position has been a revolving door for the likes of Pokey Reese, Alex Gonzalez, Alex Cora and Edgar Renteria. Each tried, and then failed, to appease Red Sox Nation.

Last season, it was Lugo’s turn. In his seven seasons prior to joining the Red Sox, Lugo was as close to a league-average hitter as you could find, as his line of .277/.340/.403 shows. After a career where he was ever so slightly above average in BABIP, in 2007 he dipped below .300 for the first time:

Lugo’s core rates in 2007 were mostly in line with what he has done for his career, suggesting that he, too, was bit by bad luck. A peek at the Marcel projections shows that if Lugo recovers his karma (or mojo, or whatever) and pushes his BABIP back above .310, his performance will rebound closer to his career averages: .263/.326/.385.

But shortstop is also about defense. And here, Lugo has struggled as well. Although he earned 6.2 Win Shares with his glove last season, Lugo’s Range Factor was only 4.21, which ranked him 20 out of 25 shortstops. It was his third consecutive season of defensive decline:

2005: 4.94 RF
2006: 4.57 RF
2007: 4.21 RF

Last year, Lugo also had difficulty turning the double play. According to the Fielding Bible, Lugo participated in 120 double-play opportunities but was successful in only 64 of them. That rate of 53.3% puts him 30 out of 32 shortstops. Part of the reason for Lugo’s poor showing was that he had difficulty turning the pivot. The Fielding Bible defines a pivot opportunity as when the force out has been made at second base—in other words, for a successful pivot to be made, the pivot man must make a strong throw to first. Lugo converted only 55.4% of his pivot opportunities, good for a ranking of 28th among all shortstops.

These five players comprise a $51-million infield that in 2007 couldn’t hit their way out of a paper bag. Marcel expects all five of our players to perform better in the coming season, but all these guys are living on the edge. A slight disappointment in fortunes could land all five back on this same list next winter.

In the weeks to come, we’ll fill out the rest of our roster. Outfielders, you’re on notice.

References & Resources
The contract info was found at Cot’s Baseball Contracts and the graphs are from Fangraphs. Both are indispensable resources.

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